Free Fire, backed with National Lottery funding through the BFI Film Fund, is available now on BFI Player
It was the closing night gala of the 60th BFI London Film Festival
Film genres have often been mixed and matched in the films of Ben Wheatley. Down Terrace (2009) is a low-budget crime movie fused with soap opera. Kill List (2011) sets off as Loachian social realism before shape-shifting into folk horror. Sightseers (2012) is like Nuts in May (1976) ramped up into horror territory, while A Field in England (2013) is a historical caper that wanders off the map into full-blown psychedelia.
It’s tempting to see his new actioner Free Fire – co-written, as ever, by Wheatley’s partner Amy Jump – as a palate cleanser following his 2015 Ballard adaptation High-Rise. Set in a Boston warehouse, where an ensemble cast, including Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Sam Riley, have congregated for a gun trade, it’s a 90-minute, single-location movie that keeps things simpler, getting down to brass tacks with a sustained onslaught of bullets and profanity as things go very badly haywire.
Asked what prompted this handbrake turn into making an all-out action movie, albeit one shot through with the co-writers’ trademark black humour, Wheatley is frank: “It’s just because I like them really. That’s my cunning plan for cinema: if I fancy doing something, then I’ll write it.”
“I’ve always been open that I like all kinds of cinema, from Tarkovsky to The Terminator. I don’t put them into separate categories. If you’re a film fan, you can like all genres and types of movie.”
Nonetheless, with Free Fire making a clamorous British bid to the frenetic tradition of John Woo, it was action cinema that was on our minds as we chatted to Wheatley about some of his all-time favourites in the genre.
Evil Dead II (1987)
Director Sam Raimi
I was at school when I first saw Evil Dead II. I didn’t know anything about it, but I randomly went to the cinema to see it. It was an empty cinema at about three o’clock in the afternoon. I’d never seen a film like that before – not just because of the horror side of it but more from the perspective of the camerawork. It was so kinetic and relentless and really very funny as well. I staggered out of the cinema gasping for air, and I told all my friends. They all went back to watch it the next day. It’s seldom now that I get the experience of watching a film I don’t know anything about, but that was one of my formative cinema experiences.
I watched The Evil Dead years later, because I couldn’t get hold of it. It was banned in the UK for a long time during the video nasties thing. But Evil Dead II is the masterwork I think. There are elements of it within Free Fire – that, mixed with Tom and Jerry cartoon stuff.
Hard Boiled (1992)
Director John Woo
Hard Boiled was another case of me encountering a kind of cinema I’d never seen before. Taking the crime genre and then turbocharging it the way that John Woo did… It’s a straight-up, serious crime film, but it’s full of virtuoso flourishes. The use of slow-motion, and the camera movements being so exaggerated, really struck me. It was the gameness of the stunt people – I’d only seen that kind of action in kung-fu movies, but to see so many people flying through the air… Usually in American cinema there’s a cut to save the stuntmen, but Hong Kong stuntmen seem to be a different breed who don’t mind landing on concrete. It makes for a much more fluid action.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Director Sam Peckinpah
I saw it in the cinema when it got rereleased in the mid-1990s. I’d seen it on VHS before that, but I think that wouldn’t have been a widescreen copy. For me it’s the Peckinpah style of parallel editing, which takes a direct route from Eisenstein editing theory. In The Wild Bunch, what was inspiring was that you could run several different stories with different characters at the same time, crosscutting back and forth between them – some of the stories being in slow motion, some being in real time, and some in extreme slow motion. I’d never seen anything like that. That connects to Hard Boiled too, because the Woo style in that film is like a souped up version of the Peckinpah style crossed with the end sequence of Taxi Driver (1976).
Seven Samurai (1954)
Director Akira Kurosawa
Credit: Toho Co., Ltd
Seven Samurai is a big one for me. Kurosawa tells the story with such incredible efficiency. For a start you’ve got seven samurai, and at least as many villager characters, then lots of bandits as well. And the action and fighting is very complicated. Yet it’s all very clear. Some characters barely get any dialogue at all and yet you feel like you know them. For me, Kurosawa sets the template for the modern action movie. The Terminator, Aliens and all those James Cameron movies – they’re all direct descendents of Seven Samurai: action movies where the characters all have very solid points of view. The action and tactics are explained very clearly. You always know where you are in a movie like that, as opposed to the opposite end of the spectrum, which is the stuff that comes from Tony Scott, then goes to Michael Bay, which is the more impressionistic action style.
The Terminator (1984) / Aliens (1986)
Director James Cameron
The Terminator is a film I go back to a lot. It has some of the best car-to-car action sequences that I’ve seen. I like the relentless pace of it. All of Cameron’s films are pretty fantastic. Aliens is another one. I was watching the special edition version the other day. I don’t think they even get on the planet for an hour. It’s very, very slow, but once it kicks off it’s incredible.
Sitting Target (1972)
Director Douglas Hickox
I’m a big fan of Sitting Target, the Oliver Reed movie. Elements of that are very reminiscent of The Terminator. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, but he almost looks like Arnie towards the end – the clothes he’s wearing are very similar and the way he moves around the place as a relentless killing machine. He’s quite robotic.
The Wild Geese (1978)
Director Andrew V. McLaglen
In Britain, it’s often war movies where you get all the action. Movies like A Bridge Too Far (1977) or The Eagle Has Landed (1976) – that’s stuff I watched a lot as a kid. I rewatched The Wild Geese the other day, which taps into all the things I liked as a kid – adventure and soldiers and mercenaries – but when you watch it now it’s quite distasteful and difficult to watch! But the action stuff in it is really good. It’s got that sodden, sleazy British late 70s/early 80s feel to it – you can feel the stale whisky off it. It’s Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Richard Burton – a weird one for Roger Moore because he would have been in the middle of doing all the Bond films. There are some great scenes of him punching through doors and dropping hand grenades and making people eat loads of heroin. At gun point. “Eat it!”
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director George Miller
The Road Warrior (1981) is one of my favourite movies. I’ve basically been chasing the thrill of seeing it as a kid ever since, but never getting to it. Until Fury Road. Miller’s pursuit of pure action is really interesting. The plot of Fury Road is that they drive somewhere and then they drive back – fighting all the way. You’re like, is that it? That’s great.
I like the fact that the film was developed from drawings. They drew a massive storyboard first, and then they wrote the script to fit on top of the storyboard. There’s space for all kinds of cinema, but it’s always a bit depressing when things become too literary – it’s a visual medium. You want things to be led by the images as much as possible. Sometimes cinema can get a little bit chatty and end up like filmed theatre or television.
To see this from a guy who’s reasonably old – that movie is setting the pace for action for everybody. It was like with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): you get a full-tilt Scorsese and a full-tilt Miller in the same period. These guys are at the top of their game and still defining what cinema looks like. Everyone else is just following.
Dirty Harry (1971)
Director Don Siegel
I saw Dirty Harry when I was quite young. The great thing about VHS machines is you’d come down in the morning and see what you’d caught in the night. It was like fishing. The toploader would be up, with the tape sticking out, and you’d have to see if you’d got what you intended to record. Oh my god, it’s Dirty Harry – and you’d watch it at about eight in the morning when none of the adults were up. I watched it again a couple of weeks ago, and it’s still really dark.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Director Paul Bartel
There didn’t seem to be any understanding of certification when I was little. The first films we ever rented were Watership Down (1978) and Death Race 2000. But the tracking was fucked on Watership Down, so I didn’t even watch it. I just went, “rabbits, whatever”, and watched Death Race 2000, which was like incredible exploitation jacked straight into my tiny young brain. Science fiction up to that point would have been Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, but then it’s suddenly people running over pensioners to score points on some futuristic game show! That set me up for life: five minutes of Watership Down and then 90 minutes of Death Race 2000 has defined everything I’ve done from that point forwards.
I also remember taping Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), but getting the timing wrong on it so it recorded an hour and a half of golf and then the first 20 minutes of Alien, and the tape running out just as the alien pops out of John Hurt’s stomach – making for the most miserable short film ever made. I couldn’t believe the sickening click of the video recorder – ker-dunk and then it rewinds. Noooooo!